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  1. Abstract

    The kidney tubule consists of a single layer of epithelial cells supported by the tubular basement membrane (TBM), a thin layer of specialized extracellular matrix (ECM). The mechanical properties of the ECM are important for regulating a wide range of cell functions including proliferation, differentiation and cell survival. Increased ECM stiffness plays a role in promoting multiple pathological conditions including cancer, fibrosis and heart disease. How changes in TBM mechanics regulate tubular epithelial cell behavior is not fully understood. Here we introduce a cell culture system that utilizes in vivo-derived TBM to investigate cell–matrix interactions in kidney proximal tubule cells. Basement membrane mechanics was controlled using genipin, a biocompatibility crosslinker. Genipin modification resulted in a dose-dependent increase in matrix stiffness. Crosslinking had a marginal but statistically significant impact on the diffusive molecular transport properties of the TBM, likely due to a reduction in pore size. Both native and genipin-modified TBM substrates supported tubular epithelial cell growth. Cells were able to attach and proliferate to form confluent monolayers. Tubular epithelial cells polarized and assembled organized cell–cell junctions. Genipin modification had minimal impact on cell viability and proliferation. Genipin stiffened TBM increased gene expression of pro-fibrotic cytokines and altered gene expression for N-cadherin, a proximal tubular epithelial specific cell–cell junction marker. This work introduces a new cell culture model for cell-basement membrane mechanobiology studies that utilizes in vivo-derived basement membrane. We also demonstrate that TBM stiffening affects tubular epithelial cell function through altered gene expression of cell-specific differentiation markers and induced increased expression of pro-fibrotic growth factors.

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